The question has come up periodically since “SNL’s” earliest days. And it has come up again with the start of a new season, its 39th, last week. In another of its periodic resets of its ever-evolving cast, the show added six cast members this season — five of whom are white and male.
This development has elicited a rebuke of sorts from within. Jay Pharoah, who along with Thompson is one of two African Americans in the 16-member cast, told the Web site TheGrio this week that the NBC show should hire an African American woman. “They need to pay attention,” said Pharoah, who even promoted his own candidate, comedic actress Darmirra Brunson. “Why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. . . . And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.”
In the case of “SNL,” the cast tends to mirror its targeted audience, which is primarily young, white and male. But casting is often destiny. Performers frequently write sketches for themselves, and writers often write to the personas and characterization skills of the performers. That often has a strong racial component. When Rudolph returned to host the show in 2012 after leaving the cast five years earlier, for example, the difference was striking. She portrayed a series of black women — Maya Angelou, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama — who hadn’t been visible on the show in her absence.
Rudolph, who also memorably impersonated Whitney Houston, was a rare performer in more ways than one. In its first 38 years, “SNL” had 13 African American cast members, and only four them — Rudolph, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne and Yvonne Hudson — were women.
In 2008, the show passed over Thompson and other African American actors when it sought someone to portray Barack Obama. The role went to Fred Armisen, who is of Caucasian and Asian heritage and whose mother is Venezuelan. Armisen donned darker makeup for his portrayal, generating controversy as a result. Pharoah took over the role at the end of last season.
“SNL” has also turned its lack of black female representation into an inspired joke. In 2011, the show hilariously spoofed Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video by featuring three white guys (Justin Timberlake, Andy Samberg and Bobby Moynihan) as the high-heeled and leotarded backup dancers to the real Beyoncé.
“ ‘SNL’ has a history of including many hosts, musical guests and cast members with different backgrounds,” said Lindsay Shookus, the producer who oversees the show’s casting. “When we scout for the show, we always look for diverse voices and representation.”
A person close to the show said that Pharoah never mentioned Brunson before and that there was never a promise to add an African American woman to the cast.